Hashtag write history with National League Cup win over Newcastle

For anyone who had stumbled down to Luton Town's Kenilworth Road ground on Saturday afternoon unaware of what fixture was being played, there could have been no doubt that Newcastle United were involved. The majority of the 3,700+ crowd for the FA Women's National League Cup final against Hashtag United was made up of travelling support clad in black and white, keen for their club to end a major trophy drought that extends back to the men's team's FA Cup win in 1955.

But while Newcastle can boast the distinction of being the first and only professional team in the Women's National League, Hashtag United, who at times seemed like polar opposites to their rich Tyneside rivals, came away with a famous 2-1 win.

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The story of Hashtag's formation under YouTuber Spencer Owen has been told many times before, but while the men's team were founded in 2016 and have enjoyed plenty of publicity on their way to the Isthmian League Premier Division, the women's team only came into existence in 2020 after merging with AFC Basildon.

Despite dominating their region, Basildon were in such dire financial straits before Owen came along that they were on the verge of folding. Now Hashtag sit second in the third tier's southern division after being promoted from the fourth tier at the end of last season.

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Newcastle are one of the most recognisable teams in the world, with a men's team steeped in history and the financial backing of Saudi Arabia's PIF, but while the women's side began life in 1989 it was only brought fully in-house in 2022. Now top of the northern half of the third tier, and a shoo-in for promotion to the Championship as they sit 12 points clear of Nottingham Forest after being promoted last season as well, Newcastle have more in common with their lowly opponents than first meets the eye.

But once the ball got rolling, it was hard to ignore the realities of a fully professional team clashing with a part-time side.

Newcastle kept the ball on the ground and looked to pass it around, leaning into their superior strength and conditioning. When speaking to ESPN ahead of the final, Newcastle defender Oliva Watt had referred to herself and teammates as "24-hour athletes," able to devote themselves to the sport they love, with many leaving behind full or part-time jobs. And the Magpies certainly looked the part in the opening stages; every bit as strong and energised as players in the Women's Super League. Hashtag, meanwhile, looked much more like the third-tier team they are -- only able to train two evenings a week as they juggle weekend football with full-time jobs.

When a neat ball forward on 16 minutes was awkwardly skewed into her own net by Malika Apindia, it seemed like it was going to be a long afternoon for the Tags, yet the Essex team found a swift response. Leaning more into "Route One" football and good hold-up play from Valentina Pursey and Player of the Match Sammy Rowland, Macey Nicholls' hopeful shot flew all the way into the left side of Grace Donnelly's goal to level the score two minutes later.

It was a goal that went against the run of play, but it was born out of Hashtag's willingness to play on the counter and look for swift balls through the middle, with Newcastle more willing to use the width of the pitch and stretch themselves out.

After the break, once again the first 20 minutes were dominated by Newcastle, but their poor finishing left the partisan crowd frustrated -- although credit should go to Hashtag goalkeeper Frankie Angel and defender Courtney Lumley for helping to keep the scoreline level with some telling interventions.

As the game wore on, the expectation was that part-timers Hashtag would tire and they would open themselves up to be exploited, as has been the case with so many of the teams Newcastle have faced this season. Yet, somehow, Hashtag began to enjoy more chances going forward. And on 72 minutes, they took the lead as Rowland strode forward with the ball, taking it all the way to the byline before flashing it across goal for Phoebe Williams to fire into the net and tip the balance in favour of the Tags.

With the memory of their last league outing (a late comeback from 2-0 down vs. Wolves) in their memories, Newcastle looked to fire back. But Hashtag stayed strong, refused to play with caution, and looked to add a third rather than run down the clock by the corner flag.

They didn't get a third, but they didn't need it either. And as the final whistle blew, Hashtag's celebrations were immense.

For Newcastle, promotion to the second tier was always the bigger fish for them to fry this season. For Hashtag, it was a moment that their players will never forget. "We proved that the underdogs have always got a chance," Grace Gillard told the BBC afterwards.

When speaking to ESPN ahead of the final, Hashtag defender Hayley West had referred to her team as "a special group." Maybe it's a cliché that you get around every team, but while it will be back to the grind on Monday, and back to their day jobs, Hashtag got their gameplan right to go toe-to-toe with the might of Newcastle United and deserve every accolade coming their way.

Hashtag lack the funds or history that come with the Newcastle badge, but they were more savvy and impressive over the 90 minutes in Luton. And for today at least, the cry is "Up the Tags!"